Joining one of the more than 400 student clubs or organizations at Stony Brook can lead to unexpected journeys. For Sarah McTague ’18, membership in the marine science club sent her all the way across the ocean.
Through the club, the Averill Park, New York, marine science major heard about a Sea Education Association program called Sea Semester, which gave her the opportunity to earn four college credits while making a 3,300- nautical-mile transatlantic crossing in a research vessel – all the way from Woods Hole, Massachusetts, to Cork, Ireland.
Sarah spent 30 days on board the clipper ship Corwith Cramer collecting data on marine life with 16 other undergraduates from all over the United States.
She and her undergraduate shipmates shared many of the duties with a crew of 13 while the vessel sailed. These included helping prepare or serve food in the galley, standing watches, sail handling and even manning the helm.
Aside from the first few days, when she was still getting her sea legs, Sarah said that the trip was “one big highlight.”
On the voyage, she got a heavy helping of teamwork. “If we didn’t work together, we would never have made it across the ocean,” she said. “I never knew the meaning of real teamwork, however, until my shipmates and I had to heave on the main halyard to raise the ship’s biggest sail.”
Her time aboard surprised her in another way.
“One of the best parts was living with no electronics, other than cameras to document what we saw and computers to type our findings,” Sarah said. “There’s nothing like steering the ship on a starry night at 2:00 am.”
The trip wasn’t without its challenges, but Sarah’s adventure-loving nature embraced them. “Wearing a full harness, a lot of the students, including me, climbed to the top of the mast where the rigging gets very thin.”
Her reward, aside from the exhilarating view and the heady rush of accomplishment, was a note atop the mast advising those who made the climb to live life to the fullest.
Even work yielded its share of fun. “We got to throw this huge net in the water, called a Neuston tow, drag it along and comb the ocean for various forms of marine life,” said Sarah.
The focus of Sarah’s research was jellyfish, and one tow could bring 200 or more to the surface. Jellyfish blooms are on the increase in ocean waters and scientists are trying to determine the reasons. Most research is currently related to ocean acidification and warming.
While on bow watch at 1:00 am, keeping an eye out for floating debris and other boats, Sarah witnessed an otherworldly sight.
“I remember feeling so exhausted that I could fall asleep right there. All of a sudden I saw these torpedoes of light shooting through the water. It took me 10 minutes to realize that these were actually dolphins lit up by the bioluminescent phytoplankton and zooplankton in the water,” she said.
Making landfall provided an education in itself. The students were fortunate to spend a week in Ireland before heading back across the Atlantic, and Sarah, being of Irish descent, used that time to see as much as she could while searching for her Irish roots.
“I actually got to look up my family name in a little store in Kinsale, where I learned about our ancestry, including my family motto, which is ‘Neither shall I desire nor dread my last day,’” she said.
Back home now, Sarah is looking forward to diving into her major and enjoying the Marine Science Club activities she began last year — activities such as trawling on one of the University’s boats at the Stony Brook/Southampton campus, watching a marine-related movie or attending a weekday lecture.
She also finds time to belong to another organization, the Women’s Soccer Club, that landed her a job coaching children in Rocky Point.
— Glenn Jochum